An unconventional biography of an unconventional character. Rather than focus on timelines or family trees, Posnanski tries to get at Houdini as a legend, as an historical figure. He gathers old interviews and childhood memories, newspaper snippets and backstage anecdotes to put together a collaged portrait of the magician. The author manages to track down elusive previous biographers (if not a copy of the out of print book itself).

He interviews David Copperfield and gets to view his massive private collection. He talks to Copperfield, probably as notable as Houdini was in his day, about the pull of the legendary illusionist. But he also talks to the (relatively) unknowns of the magic world. There is a couple, Kristin and Kevin, who quit their jobs to become illusionists. They now travel the country, performing the Water Cell Torture escape, and other tricks at fairs and circuses.

Though he doesn’t insult Houdini, Posnanski does debunk some of the more wild stories about him — including the rumors Houdini himself started.

We don’t know the first time Houdini escaped from handcuffs, but we do know that in November of 1895, he first challenged audience members to lock him in their personal handcuffs. … He added it to the act.

A few days later in Gloucester, a small town in Massachusetts’s North Shore, Houdini had a real moment of inspiration: he walked into the local police station and challenged the officers to lock him in handcuffs. …

‘He unlocks them all with as much ease as if they were strings around his wrists,’ the local paper reported. Then it was off to Holyoke, where he received eerily similar praise. …

Why do both stories sound alike? Because Houdini wrote them. He wrote all the stories that appeared in newspapers in the early days. This wasn’t exactly uncommon — other entertainers wrote their own billings — but nobody has as much enthusiasm for the activities of self-promotion as Houdini has. He once told a friendly reporter, ‘I have written for more newspapers than anyone in history.’ Pg. 103

It’s a different way of bringing a kaleidoscopic figure into focus. If you are looking to get a deep, detailed understanding of Houdini, then this may not be the place to start. The deliberate piecemeal style is entertaining and well done but it is an unorthodox presentation. But if you have a better-than-basic knowledge of the escape artist, you will want to add these curiosities to your cabinet.

My rating: 

My thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy.

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster (October 22, 2019)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1501137239
ISBN-13: 978-1501137235
Product Dimensions: 6 x 9 inches

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